From counter- terrorism to soft authoritarianism: the case of NEIL DeVOTTA
Introduction When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 it was considered a model colony that had a great chance of becoming a postcolonial success story. The island had been granted universal franchise in 1931 and, notwithstanding ethnic differences, Sinhalese and Tamils elites from the majority and minority communities, respectively, had banded together to successfully negotiate independence from the British. Yet within eight years Sinhalese elites resorted to linguistic and religious nationalism, which exacerbated relations between the groups, and gradually led to civil war (DeVotta 2004). Civil wars justify counter-terror practices, and the longer the conflict the more draconian these practices can become. While authoritarian states experiencing civil wars may resort to crackdowns without much constraint –because the populace has little say in how policy gets conducted in such states – democratic states can gradually embrace and justify similarly brutal counter-terror strategies the longer the conflict lasts. The upshot is that ethnic conflicts end up compromising democracy and over the long term can lead to authoritarianism (Horowitz 1993). Sri Lanka represents such a case. The country was a commendable democracy in its first decade following independence. Pro-Sinhalese ethnocentric policies slowly but surely pushed it into an illiberal orbit. The extrajudicial and extraconstitutional methods that were adopted to end the civil war in turn have made it easier for the current Mahinda Rajapaksa administration to institute authoritarian practices that have caused democracy to become further compromised. In short, Sri Lanka has regressed from liberal democracy to illiberal democracy to soft-authoritarianism, and the ethnic conflict and attendant counter-terror strategies are a major reason for this democratic deficit. The continued militarisation, notwithstanding the civil war having ended in 2009, and the Rajapaksa family’s determination to create a political dynasty suggest that this democratic erosion is likely to continue. Soft-authoritarianism here refers to a regime that manipulates features of democracy to maintain legitimacy even as it operates in illiberal ways, thereby undermining democratic institutions and the rule of law, so as to perpetuate power. Unlike ‘hard authoritarian’ states that get ruled by diktat (Illarionov
2009), soft authoritarian regimes blend aspects of electoral democracy with authoritarianism. Typically, these are regimes that craftily design electoral competition to suggest opposition forces can come to power but rig the system to ensure their defeat (Way and Levitsky 2010; Diamond 2008). The argument made here is that the counter-terror strategies Sri Lanka’s civil war justified have in turn contributed to the current soft-authoritarian dispensation. The literature on exceptionalism provides a basis for situating this argument theoretically. Exceptionalism refers to how a country or society can undergo an ‘exceptional’ period of crisis or transformation that makes institutionalised norms, rules, and laws irrelevant. It is a milieu that is conducive to superimposing radical change that established social orders may otherwise oppose. For instance, exceptionalism can easily foist illiberal policies on even liberal societies by utilising arguments concerning security, territoriality and sovereignty. Thus the ‘war on terror’ following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 allowed the Bush Administration to justify detention sites like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and illiberal practices such as extraordinary rendition and mass surveillance as exceptions to extant norms (Neal 2006: 31; Aradau and Van Munster 2009: 688). The exceptions can be instituted via extrajudicial and extraconstitutional means or by simply creating new laws that overturn extant laws (Ericson 2007). Good laws are thus easily defenestrated by bad laws utilising arguments about crises and exceptional times. With the state bearing primary responsibility for ensuring security and sovereignty, such bad laws are easily legitimated and institutionalised. When this takes place in relatively democratised societies, the inevitable result is a move toward illiberalism and democratic erosion. Exceptionalism is rooted in fear and insecurity, promotes superordination/ inclusion and subordination/exclusion in societal relations, and predisposes people to violence (Huysmans 2006). In countries where ethnic contestation is rife, it is easy for those controlling the levers of state power to manipulate exceptionalism and subjugate legitimate opposition (be it ethnic or ideological nemeses). This is because ethnic civil wars enable opponents to be demonised and trivialised by portraying them as racist, rapacious, predatory, outsiders, and traitorous. The subsequent us/sons-of-the-soil versus them/interlopers mentality in turn sets up a narrative that can be mined to institute exceptional policies – ethnic or otherwise. Sri Lanka’s trajectory of democratic erosion is a classic example of such exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is also concerned with how illiberalism leads to authoritarianism – especially when untrammeled executive power undermines the rule of law (Huysmans 2008: 167). In this regard, too, Sri Lanka stands out. Indeed, the exceptionalism that undergirded the island’s ethnocentric and counter-terror policies is part of the same narrative and logic that are being used now to legitimise soft-authoritarian politics. The essay’s first section provides a brief overview of how Sri Lanka’s civil war evolved. It thereafter evaluates the strategies that the Sri Lankan Government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa adopted to defeat the LTTE, while the
third section discusses how many of these strategies continue to be used as part of the government’s attempt to perpetuate its power. In short, Sri Lanka vanquished the LTTE and reaped a democratic deficit. And all indications suggest that this democratic deficit is deepening under Rajapaksa family rule. The essay concludes by arguing that the triumphalism following the defeat of the LTTE among most Sri Lankans is misplaced since the military victory that unleashed such triumphalism has also enabled the current climate of repression. While the literature makes it debatable whether civil wars definitively contribute to authoritarianism (Fortna and Huang 2012), in Sri Lanka’s experience it is indisputable that the island’s civil war has indeed contributed to authoritarianism.